>While watching the Olympics I was reminded of the fact that the
>stroke we think of as "freestyle" was originally called "the crawl".
>(And that some other stroke used to be considered faster...)
Rumor has it that European competitive swimmers swam something akin to
the ***stroke until roughly the turn of the century when the crawl,
which was learned from Native Americans, became pre***. I have
no idea how much of this story is really true...
>Is it still legal to swim any stroke during "freestyle" races? Or are the
>swimmers restricted to the crawl?
Yes, any stroke is acceptable. A possible exception is in a medley
event, where it may be illegal to swim one of the other three strokes
in the "freestyle" leg.
Some young children can in fact swim ***stroke or backstroke faster
than the crawl, though of course one usually doesn't see them entered
in freestyle events.
>Suppose someone invents a startling new stroke which is faster than
>the crawl, will they be allowed to use it in competition?
Sure, unless it is startling enough to provoke a rule change. I
consider this extremely unlikely for freestyle (as opposed to, say,
backstroke), but if someone should figure out a way to exploit a
loophole in the rules (I'm talking about rules that disallow pulling
on the lane ropes, etc.) I'm sure it will be dealt with quickly.